Shakespearean England was a treasure-trove of historical giants – Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, the Earl of Essex, Edward Alleyn, John Lyly, William Kempe – all fascinating to be sure. It was hard to choose, but here is a list of those five contemporaries of the Bard whose lives I find most intriguing.
1. Christopher Marlowe
The brilliant young playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl on May 30, 1593, and the events surrounding his suspicious death have chilled and captivated all those interested in Renaissance England. Known as Shakespeare's only literary peer1 until his untimely death, Marlowe is responsible for some of the finest lyrical poetry of any age, and possibly had a hand in writing four of Shakespeare's early dramas.2
Allusions to Marlowe's work are prevalent in Shakespeare's plays. Here Shakespeare quotes directly a line from Marlowe's Hero and Leander (176): "Whoever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?" (As You Like It, 3.5.81). It is argued that Shakespeare alludes to Marlowe's murder in As You Like It, 3.3.11-12: "it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room", and apostrophizes his dead friend in A Midsummer Night's Dream:
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.8-18)
Now, for those with lots of imagination: theory has it that, because he was about to be tried for heresy, Marlowe staged his death and fled to Italy. From there, Marlowe is supposed to have penned all the works attributed to Shakespeare and had them smuggled back to England. 3
2. King James I
After the death of Elizabeth I, James the VI of Scotland became the new ruler, known in England as King James I. His fascination with the occult prompted him to write his own treatise on witchcraft, Daemonology, and many believe that James's vehement belief in the divine right of kings influenced Shakespeare's play-writing methodology. James I is probably best known for his translation of the Bible into English which became known as the Authorized King James Version. For more please see King James I: Shakespeare's Patron.
3. Sir Walter Raleigh
Certainly Sir Walter Raleigh, the explorer, poet, philosopher, soldier, statesman, and political pundit, had the busiest life of any Elizabethan subject. As one of Queen Elizabeth's favourite courtiers, the charming Raleigh enjoyed a life of fame, riches, and swashbuckling. However, Raleigh's arrogance and bravado made him unpopular with many, and he was eventually executed for treason against the new monarch, James I.
4. Dr. Simon Forman
The mysterious Dr. Forman, an English astrologer and doctor whose many scandals riveted Elizabethan England, wrote scores of papers on the subjects of medicine and astrology. He saved countless lives during the plagues of 1592 and 1594, yet was imprisoned by the Royal College of Physicians in London for use of "magical potions" to help patients. For a detailed look at Simon Forman please see Going to a Play in Shakespeare's London: Simon Forman's Diary.
5. Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage, the famed Elizabethan actor, artist, and theatrical entrepreneur, gained unprecedented acclaim by playing many of the major Shakespearean characters, including Othello, Hamlet, Lear, and Richard III. In 1599, Richard, with the help of his brother, built what is now the most recognizable playhouse in the Western world -- the Globe Theatre. For more information please see Richard Burbage the Legend.
John Ingram put it best when he wrote, "One of the brightest intellects of the age was suddenly annihilated; one of the country's purest
poetic geniuses was snatched from life just as his powers were ripening to fulfilment. Prognostication
in the presence of fact is purposeless, yet it is difficult to avoid thinking with what glorious masterpieces
might the world have been dowered had Shakespeare's only peer at thirty have survived to the
fifty years which Shakespeare lived to; if only some further fulfilment had been granted to Marlowe's
'Yearning in desire
To follow Knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.'" (Ingram 246)
2. Shakespeare's plays Henry VI, I, II and III
and Titus Andronicus are those in question. "There is only the
internal evidence to guide us, and that everybody naturally
interprets his own way. But though on points of style differences of opinion may exist, peculiarities of diction, out-of-the-way words, odd turns of expression, - and of such there is no lack in these four plays - cannot be explained away; consequently they should, I
imagine, be allowed to constitute a tiny link in the chain of evidence....Individually such points may be of
infinitesimal importance; collectively they are not so contemptible. Every writer has his vocabulary, and having
once used a word he is likely to employ it again." (Verity 107)
3. For more on this peculiar conspiracy see the book The Marlowe-Shakespeare connection: a new study of the authorship question by Samuel L. Blumenfeld.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Contemporaries. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearecontemps.html >.
Ingram, John. Christopher Marlowe and his Associates. London: G. Richards, 1904.
Verity, A. W. Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakespeare. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1885.